How U.S. Budget Cuts Prolong Global Slavery

How U.S. Budget Cuts Prolong Global Slavery
Three days before the congressional elections last fall, Hillary Rodham Clinton stood halfway around the world, pledging to young victims of human trafficking at Cambodia’s s Siem Reap Center that they would continue to enjoy the support of the U.S. State Department, which then provided some $336,000 to the shelter. The acclaimed center, situated near the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, was an oasis of peace for some 50 survivors who, before they were rescued or escaped, had endured slavery in brothels, where they were forced to have sex with as many as 30 men a day. At the shelter, they received counseling, studied hairdressing, learned to sew, and otherwise worked to rebuild their lives and reclaim their humanity. In the evening, they did aerobics together.

On Monday afternoon, some eight months after that visit, as she unveiled the State Department’s 11th annual Trafficking in Persons Report to a packed room in the department’s ornate Benjamin Franklin Room, Clinton only hinted that the result of the congressional elections had left the long-term value of her pledge to the survivors in doubt. “Even in these tight economic times, we need to find ways to do better,” Clinton told the overflow crowd.

Clinton’s confidence belied the fact that in April, Congress slashed the grant-making capacity of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. When the Republicans won the House last November, the office’s $21.2 million annual budget to fight the war on slavery was already microscopic. At the time, it was barely equal to the U.S. government’s daily budget to fight the war on drugs. For fiscal year 2012, Congress sliced away nearly a quarter of those antislavery funds, as part of its broader $8 billion State Department budget cuts.

For Mark Lagon, a former Republican staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who headed the TIP office during the Bush Administration’s second term, the budget cuts are “a sign that all programs are evenly hit, even those with broad nonpartisan support.” But Lagon was troubled that shoestring yet lifesaving overseas antislavery programs would feel those cuts most dearly. “We need to spend 10 times as much on fighting human trafficking and ending slavery,” said Lagon, “and it would still be a bargain even at that price.”

In this year’s trafficking report, the constraints on the TIP office are not limited to the budget. Annually, the report ranks countries based on how well they fought slavery in the previous year. Countries demonstrating the most effective antitrafficking efforts are placed in Tier 1; recalcitrant nations are placed in Tier 3, where they could face nontrade sanctions, including prohibitions on development assistance. While the 2011 report ranks most of the 184 countries in the middle, the State Department ranked 42 nations just above those threatened with sanctions on the watch list of Tier 2. Antislavery activists claim that ranking a country in the watch list for some consecutive years amounts to a cop-out. In congressional testimony last year, Holly Burkhalter, vice president for government relations at the International Justice Mission, decried the misuse of the list as a “‘parking lot’ for U.S. allies that actually
belonged in Tier 3.”